Little Wing (1970)
Derek And The Dominos
Here is a lesson on how to dis both Jimi Hendrix and one of the greatest Rock songs ever, “Layla,” in one short profile.
Jimi’s version of “Little Wing,” the original, which he wrote about observing a girl (or girls) at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967, is not the best version, although it is excellent in its own right.
Eric Clapton’s rendition is the benchmark. (Given a superhuman assist by The Dominos, including Duane “Skydog” Allman, sitting in on the sessions.) Nevertheless, Clapton’s version of “Little Wing” stands as a tribute to Hendrix, who died only weeks before the recording session.
Now, be prepared to be slapped again: “Layla” isn’t the best song on its namesake album. “Little Wing” is. (In fact, “Layla” is not the second or third best on the album, those laurels belonging to “I Looked Away” and “Bell Bottom Blues,” “Thorn Tree In The Garden” nipping at Layla’s heels.)
“Little Wing” from Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs
“Little Wing,” the original Hendrix version
“Little Wing” is heavily influenced by Clapton’s time with The Beatles, the lush and layered instrumentation emblematic of the Fab Four’s late work. Clapton’s version strays just enough from the Hendrix original so as not to spoil it, transforming it instead into a tour de force of epic proportions, a song indeed that might have signaled the final summation of the Blues. Coincidentally, it might have also signaled the highest achievement in the short, very happy life of psychedelic music. For, above all, “Little Wing” is a shout out from the far side of reality.
Clapton’s “Little Wing” takes the rather light-hearted, if slightly moody, lyrics of Hendrix – kaleidoscopic and trippy from a time when LSD was still a novelty – and re-forges it into a heart-rending lament. The lyrics standing alone unvarnished by music attest to the original’s pleasant spin, a bare bones simplicity, a small celebration:
Well she’s walking through the clouds
With a circus mind that’s running ’round
Butterflies and zebras, fairy tales
That’s all she ever thinks about
When I’m sad she comes to me
With a thousand smiles she gives to me free
Said, “It’s all right, take anything you want
Anything you want, anything”
Fly on, little wing
Hendrix gave us a reverie on a summer day, and some fantasy sex. Clapton spins the lyrics in an entirely different direction.
It would take an elaborate explication of the entire Layla And Other Love Songs album to frame how “Little Wing” slots into two Rock gods’ notorious love triangle story. Suffice it to say that Clapton was having an affair with George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd, who was dithering at the Layla moment. Boyd and Clapton (left) eventually married after Pattie and George divorced, although Clapton and Harrison remained friends and sometime-collaborators. As with any triangle, it wasn’t pretty.
Clapton’s short-lived heartbreak is raw, tangible, infuses his vocals and his high-flown guitar playing with a sense of agony. Many critics have called it his finest sustained effort throughout a single album. Inarguably, on the album there are a solid half dozen of his, and Rock music’s, finest works.
The Dominos are the greatest band ever assembled off the cuff, and it is absolutely certain that better guitar-playing has never been heard on one individual album, unless it be by Hendrix himself. (Duane Allman plays a soaring slide guitar on 11 of the 14 pieces.) The remaining players are legends of the time: Bobby Whitlock, Carle Radle and Jim Gordon.
“Little Wing” is a tall monument carved in the face of the mountain of Rock-N-Roll.
- “Little Wing” and “Layla” were recorded on the same day – the second to the last of the Layla sessions. Duane Allman was an unplanned member of the recordings.
- “Little Wing” has also been covered by Sting, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Toto and Santana.